January is National Hot Tea Month and a perfect time to enjoy a tea tasting afternoon with friends taking inspiration from a formal “tea cupping” but focusing on the preparation and having fun with the presentation. At home you can honor the “spirit” of tea cupping without following the letter of the law!
You will need either individual cupping sets of white porcelain which include a mug with lid for brewing plus a tea bowl for tasting or a teapot for brewing plus teacups for each of the guests. Next, select teas that you would like to try – perhaps three from the different types such as white, green, oolong, black, or pu’erh and one herbal such as rooibos or honeybush. You might even want to try a variety of flavored teas. Make sure you have the proper equipment to brew water at the different temperatures needed for your tea selections.
Tea cupping pays attention to several factors: sight, smell, taste and touch plus looks at three things: the dry leaf (appearance and feel), the liquor (color, flavor and aroma), and the wet, freshly brewed tea leaf.
1) Dry Leaf
For fun you can put a sample of the leaves on a white cardstock tray and pass it around so that guests can see, smell and even chew one (!) prior to brewing. You can tell a lot about a tea by first examining the dry leaves. Gently press some dry leaves in your hand. Note the leaf size, shape and length. Pay attention to its dry appearance – texture and color - as well as its aroma especially when crushed a little.
Brew the tea in the individual mugs or a teapot, considering the temperature of water and steeping time appropriate for each. After steeping, pour off liquid into a white tea bowl or cup and take in the aroma of the tea. Note the color. Color does not necessarily indicate the strength or body, but every tea has a unique look, taste, and feel peculiar to that tea. Now taste the tea.
1. Take a spoonful of the liquid to your lower lip and slurp with force to ensure that the tea is sprayed over the entire tongue.
2. Move the tea around in your mouth, sucking in more short bursts of air in order to release more delicate characteristics. This step is important since we taste bitterness at the back of the tongue, saltiness in the middle, sweetness in the front and sourness on the sides of the tongue.
3. Spit the tea out or swallow. Enjoy the rest of the cup.
Ask your guests if there is a noticeable difference in color, aroma and taste between the tea before brewing and the steeped tea.
3) Wet Leaf
Place infused leaves on the mug lid or in a white bowl. Examine the change in size, color and aroma of the leaves
4) Record Observations
As novices our challenge is to convey what we find in the cup, while expert tasters work towards grading each cup against what they already know should or should not be present. It might be fun to create a chart with the tea types, so guests can add their description of the ‘nose’ of the dry leaf, the ‘flavor’ of the liquor and the ‘aroma’ of the wet leaf as they share with one another.
To add to the enjoyment of the afternoon, add some plain scones between the tea types and the herbal!
BASIC SCONES: Combine 2 c flour, 1/3 c sugar, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp baking soda and 1/4 tsp salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in 8Tbs butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Combine an egg and 1/2c sour cream or yogurt until well blended, and then add to dry ingredients until they are moistened. Knead on floured surface until dough holds together. Divide dough in half and pat out each into a 1/2 inch thick circle and cut into 6 wedges. Place on greased baking sheet, brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 mins or until golden brown.
A tea tasting is a good place to share your love of tea with friends and family who might be new to the world of tea. It won’t replace tea cupping, which is an important part of the business of tea, but there is a time and a place for both.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”